Vensam Iala, Guinean, dreamed about becoming a soccer player. He had always heard his father speak about Brazil, during his childhood, consecrated by its soccer and players as Pelé. When he as 17 years old, that dream was shattered, as he fractured his clavicle that would prevent his becoming a professional athlete. However, his fascination with Brazil continued. And then in 2010 Vesam was able to accomplish his wish, when he could finally visit the country. He then moved to the city of Assis to study language arts at São Paulo State University (Unesp).
After living in Brazil for 9 years, he had still not gotten his Brazilian citizenship, Vensam faced racism, something he had not yet experienced up to then. In spite of those negative experiences, he also got involved in diverse causes, and he began a new career as an actor and model. Nowadays, he is 30 years old and has graduated in language arts, and he holds a diploma as a specialist in Portuguese African literature. He also became a social activist in migratory causes, as a member of Promigra, a project working toward promoting migrant rights and the Organization Heart of Africa entity. He has also taught Portuguese classes to immigrants in the Organization Peace Mission, an institution providing support and accommodations to immigrants and refugees in the city of São Paulo.
In December 2018, his life completely changed when he won the Mister Africa Brazil pageant when he was selected as the most handsome African immigrant in Brazil. He now works as a model and actor. Shortly, his work will be launched on movie screens throughout Brazil. He is part of the “Pedro” movie cast that tells the story based on Dom Pedro I, the Brazilian Emperor, and portrays a parallel to the current Brazilian political scenario. The movie stars Cauã Reymond, and Laís Bodanzky, the filmmaker, directed the full-length movie who has been the director and scriptwriter for such famous Brazilian movies as the “O Bicho de Sete Cabeças” (the Seven-Headed Beast) and “Como os Nossos Pais”(As Our Parents).
What was it like when you came to Brazil?
I came to Brazil through PEC-G, in 2010. As my wish to visit Brazil was nourished by my dream at that time of becoming a soccer player and Brazil was classified as a world-class soccer championship team.
The Graduation-Agreement-Student Program (PEC-G) offers higher education opportunities to citizens from developing countries in those countries where Brazil maintains educational and cultural agreements — developed by the Foreign Affairs and Education Ministries, partnering with public federal, state, and private universities.
Have you visited other Brazilian states besides São Paulo? Have you lived anywhere else in the country?
Yes, I have visited some cities in states like Rio de Janeiro, Santa Catarina, Mato Grosso, Minas Gerais, and Paraná. I lived in Assis, a small inland city in the state of São Paulo.
You said that you discovered what being black means and as you experienced structural racism in Brazil. What does this mean? How have you dealt with that issue?
Yes, I discovered what it means to be a black person in Brazil as whites cannot see institutional racism, but to blacks, it is obvious. It only occurs in powerful places, and then you see there are no people of color there and then color is not related to those with whom I identify. The system or state still considers black people as slaves. That reality is very far removed from my reality because of the way I had constructed my identity (due to the struggle achieving freedom by expelling the Portuguese invaders and as my country is overwhelming black) it is very different the way my Afro-Brazilian brothers view things. Here, for example, is one of the last countries to abolish slavery, there is color in powerful spaces, there is color in jobs, and that is not just from my people. All of this is a reflection from slavery. Some of these things make me discover what it means being black. The black movement helped me a great deal to understand this delicate and complex process and also to understand a little more about this and also understand my place when I speak as an African Black person.
In the past few years, interest is increasing by Brazilians in their African heritage, especially by the black population in the country. What do you think about this?
This is very favorable. People who do not know their history will hardly understand their present, and they will not strive to know their future. Our history has been told for centuries told from the slave ship point-of-view. Our history has been denied, distorted, and thereby a humiliating history was invented to shame us. But it is worthwhile to say that this quest for ancestry has been going on for a long time. A great number of us have died because of that quest. I can mention Dandara, and others, so that nowadays interest has been increasing. Thus, now we are the protagonists of our history, and thereby, we can share it with our brothers and sisters here and vice-versa.
How did you decide to become an actor, and how has your experience been? And what are your plans for the future?
In Guinea-Bissau, I had participated in theater for some time in a church, and after that, I decided to stop as that was not my bag because I wanted to play soccer. After coming here I studied Language Arts. I graduated from the course feeling like some methodology was missing to start teaching in a classroom and remained there. But then the opportunity to become a fashion model and it consequently introduced me to acting. I acted in a long play movie due to an invitation from a director as she liked my performance and thereby I discovered myself on the set. My plan now is to continue improving and continue my artistic career, as maybe I will become a great actor like Welket Bungé from Guinea-Bissau, one of my references. However, my fight to defend the migratory and refugee cause is also my lifelong commitments.
What do you think of Brazil and Guinea-Bissau, and how are they similar and different?
We are similar in various ways, but what I wish to emphasize is the language, as we have the same shared official language. And what is different, besides the structural racism is the fact that we have been able to preserve and maintain all our native languages among our ethnics groups. The Guianese Creole language is one of our national languages, different from Brazil. That is not a critique, but it is observation.
What must people visit when they go to Guinea-Bissau?
I believe they must visit the Bijagós Archipelagoes that has been considered by Unesco as a biosphere reserve since 1996. It is made up of 88 islands, and many of them are uninhabited. But you must not accuse me of saying that as I sincerely want you to visit our country that is culturally and environmentally so rich.
Do you usually visit Guinea-Bissau? By-the-way are you planning to live there?
I have been living here for 9 years, and during that time, I was able to go there twice. The last time was in 2016. As we say in Guianese Creole: “I lá ku nha biku nteradu.” Literally translated it means “and there was where my umbilical cord was buried.” For us, where your umbilical cord is buried is where you must also be buried, and for that reason, yes, I will return there and make my contribution to participate in the development of my country as much as possible during my lifetime.